For most families, Memorial Day signals the beginning of the traditional camping season. As the holiday weekend arrives, local retailers are beginning to stock what they know campers need most.

“Our big spike is around the camping season, which is May to about August, and then in the fall we get the hunters who will be out in the woods,” said Craig Ronish, camping buyer for Sunbird Shopping Center in Chehalis.

According to the national Outdoor Foundation, more than 40 million Americans went camping last year. Those who camp spend more than $1.5 billion annually on camping supplies, with packs, tents and shelters, sleeping bags and cooking materials being the largest selling categories.

Whether it be car camping, backwoods tent camping or even RV camping, Laura Lyon, camping lead for Cabela's in Lacey, said the one cooking item all campers seem to find necessary are the metal sticks used for roasting marshmallows. 

But for most campers, cooking at camp has evolved from the simple hot dog on a stick over a campfire, with camp cooking supplies racking up $192 million in sales annually. Lyon said she has seen a large upswing in consumers' interest in cast iron cooking, especially Dutch ovens. This popularity also translates to the fire cooking gadgets, such as pie irons.

But while some campers cook exclusively on the campfire ring available at all overnight camping sites, most bring at least one other cooking method, Lyon added. She noted that while a campfire is an easy and reliable method, its use is largely determined by the weather. Not only can a campfire be hard to maintain if it rains, but hotter, drier months can also have an affect on its use.

“Late in the season sometimes they have fire bans where you can only use a contained fire such as in a barbecue and you can't use the controlled fire pit,” Lyon said.

When shopping for a cooking gadget for camping, Lyon said, the first thing consumers should do is think about the type of camping they do. If you are driving to your camping spot, think about how much room you have to spare in your vehicle. But car camping certainly has its advantages for the camping chef, since bringing along heavier items such as Dutch ovens, cast iron and charcoal is much easier. If you are a backpacker, you must not only think about how much room your pack has, but also how much weight you want to carry.

The traditional two-burner portable gas stoves, such as those made by Coleman, are still one of the most popular sellers, said Ronish. They maintain their allure because they use easily accessible fuel and fold up for easy storage and moving. But even these old workhorses have gotten makeovers recently, with premium series that add larger, more energy efficient burners and electronic starters.

“You can boil water twice as fast so you have a much quicker cook time,” Ronish said. “So if you're using it to boil a lot of water for potatoes or crab or corn this is better.”

Another consideration with camp stoves is how many people will you be feeding. Ronish said he has seen an upswing in people camping in larger groups of friends and wanting larger capacity cooking devices. 

One of Sunbird's larger selling camp stoves is from Camp Chef and includes regular barbecue style cooking grates as well as a large flat top grill surface.

“It's not just the tent campers,” Ronish said. “We get people who go out on larger camping trips. They'll take four or five people or three or four families and their RVs and go out to the dunes and they'll use this as the focal point for their camp.”

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